A decade ago, few organizers imagined that the creation of Paddle Antrim, a small non-profit, would become a catalyst for regional support to protect and promote Northern Michigan’s pristine 100-mile Chain of Lakes. As the paddling organization celebrates its 10th anniversary, Paddle Antrim’s collaborations with volunteer paddling enthusiasts, local businesses, and local governments across the region have resulted in:

  • The first state-designated water trail in northern Michigan, a 100-mile route through 12 lakes and interconnected rivers.
  • The annual Paddle Antrim Festival with participants from Michigan and other states paddling up to 42 miles over two days.
  • Community paddles and educational programs on paddling safety and skills.
  • Grants and educational efforts for environmental stewardship programs.

“Everything Paddle Antrim does is just a testament to people turning toward each other and coming together to focus on something they all care about,” said Megan Motil, president of the nonprofit’s board. “And I think that’s why it works. Whether it’s the businesses or the folks coming out to recreate or the donors or the volunteers. I just think it’s kind of magical when that can happen and it’s because everyone’s choosing to do it together.”

Prior to Paddle Antrim’s creation in 2014, efforts to celebrate Northern Michigan’s water resources were less aligned. Local chambers of commerce were discussing ways to use the Chain of Lakes as a tool for increased tourism and local economic development. The Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy was talking with state and local officials about developing a formal water trail, like trails in New York and other states. And a local brewing company had created an annual paddling event from Bellaire to Elk Rapids.

In 2013, individuals from these three efforts came together with other organizations interested in promoting and protecting the water trail. After a year of pooling knowledge and resources, the group recruited a founding board of directors, created Paddle Antrim as an IRS-recognized non-profit, and hired Deana Jerdee as Paddle Antrim’s executive director.

“It brought together the region,” said Mary Faculak, president of the East Jordan Area Chamber of Commerce and owner of two women’s clothing stores, the E.J. Shoppe in East Jordan and Mary’s of Boyne in Boyne City. “I’ve been at the chamber for 32 years. This is the first project with these chambers on the chain working together very, very well. It was unique and a wonderful bonding experience for these chambers.”

“We don’t have governmental structures set up for people to work across jurisdictional boundaries very easily,” said Motil, then director of development at the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, one of Michigan’s largest land trusts. “But really it was just a bunch of passionate people who were sort of working in parallel with each other, but not really connected who came together around this.”

“They were visionaries a decade ago,” Jerdee said. “They dreamt of bringing people together, connecting people through these waterways and promoting the wonderful paddling opportunities this region has to offer, all while safeguarding them for future generations.”

In 2015, Short’s Brewing Company worked with Paddle Antrim to convert the one-day Short’s to Short’s paddling event into the current two-day festival that includes nearly every lake in the chain. Short’s remains the festival’s presenting sponsor and hosts events both days.

“The thing that’s awesome about the Chain of Lakes is that they are so beautiful, so pristine. It’s so important for everyone to get involved” as stewards of the water system, said founder Joe Short. “We really appreciate that there is an entity out there advocating for this resource.”

The festival was quickly embraced by communities along the route, Faculak said.

“I still remember those early festivals bringing people to Ellsworth, bringing people in that were from out of the state, from all over the country,” she said. “People were amazed at the beauty and wouldn’t have thought to come into this area had it not been for this event.”

“There was and still is the pride from these smaller communities, not just Ellsworth, but Central Lake and Bellaire and right down to Elk Rapids.”

Perhaps the most important Paddle Antrim collaboration was an agreement among 20 government bodies and non-profit organizations to coordinate 84 water access points under the Water Trail designation. When the Chain of Lakes Water Trail received state designation in 2018, the state, three counties, a dozen local governments, and several non-profits agreed to allow Paddle Antrim to host the trail, posting uniform signage at access sites and marketing the unified water trail.

But work to organize the trail had begun years earlier, said Jerdee. Using a state grant and private donations, the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy inventoried all publicly owned and non-profit access sites that were publicly accessible along the entire Chain of Lakes corridor.

Prior to that effort, “we didn’t even have maps of where the sites were,” Motil said. “The local units of government didn’t have that kind of geographic information systems capability. We were able to literally put dots on a map and describe what was available at the site,” she said. “It was the first sort of discovery effort around what might be possible to really create a water trail.”

Generous state grant and private funding allowed Paddle Antrim to place permanent signs with water trail maps and other information at each access site. Paddle Antrim volunteers maintain each site during warm weather to ensure the signs are visible from land and water and in good condition.

“I can’t imagine not having the signage available,” said Sue Haadsma-Svensson, a board member who lives on Clam Lake. “So many people before had asked where they could put in and take out. Now it’s so much easier; we’re always getting comments on the signs.”

A recent report by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis showed that outdoor recreation contributed $12.4 billion to Michigan’s economy during 2022. While state-level data for kayaking/canoeing is not broken out, these activities added $1.1 billion to the U.S economy during that year.

No organization tracks the economic impact of the Chain of Lakes Water Trail, but anecdotal evidence is mentioned often by local businesses.

“Obviously their promoting of the waterways is huge for us,” said Patrick Boyd, a Bellaire village council member, a board member of the Bellaire Chamber of Commerce, and owner of Paddles and Pedals, a downtown cycling and paddling shop. “People come here on vacation, and they see the stuff from Paddle Antrim and they want to experience it.”

Even more so during the festival, Boyd said. “It’s a big festival. It brings a lot of people to town. The majority of people rent either bed and breakfast rooms in town, or rooms up at Shanty Creek. And eating at all the local establishments and drinking at the local establishments and hopefully shopping at the local establishments. It’s definitely a good economic impact.”

Paddle Antrim maintains a robust website with a detailed water trail map, paddling routes based on skill level, schedules for stewardship courses, volunteer opportunities, and paddling skills and safety classes for beginners and for more experienced paddlers.

Educational programs offered by Paddle Antrim are aimed at protecting paddlers and their environment. “We believe paddlers who are connected to our waterways are the best resource for identifying and reporting aquatic invasive species (AIS),” Jerdee said. “We partner with organizations to host classes to train the paddling community on monitoring AIS. Identification, reporting and removal of AIS is an important part of our stewardship mission.”

In addition to stewardship classes, Paddle Antrim also offers kayaking and paddle boarding classes to teach basic skills and safety measures to adults and youth.  Since these classes began in 2017, hundreds of paddlers have participated in a class. 

“Our stewardship and safety paddling classes have created a community of paddlers who are embracing and advocating safety and stewardship on our waterways,” said Jerdee.

Since 2015, Paddle Antrim has given 35 grants totaling more than $35,000 as part of their Ripple Effect Mini Grant Program. The grants are intended to support other community groups serving the Chain of Lakes Watershed and adjacent watersheds that impact Antrim County. Funded by earned revenue from events, the program fosters relationships and collaboration with organizations working toward similar goals. 

“We always have small but impactful projects we want to get off the ground, and these grants are great for those,” said James Dake, Educational Director at Grass River Natural Area. 

An early grant helped fund an accessible kayak launch in Milton Township Waterfront Park, the first such launch on the water trail. 

Recent Paddle Antrim grants supported a kayak launch in Richardi Park in Bellaire and helped a staff person at Grass River Natural Area become certified in herbicide application to control the spread of invasive species along the waterways. 

“The fact that a nonprofit is giving out grants is very cool; it keeps our organizations connected in a significant way, allowing more collaboration to happen,” said Dake. 

“For me, I just think it’s such a powerful organization in terms of connecting people to our water,” said Jenn Wright, Executive Director, Grass River Natural Area. “The more people we have out there educated, appreciative and understanding and actually having experiences on the water, the better chance we have of getting people to care about what it is that surrounds us, this water.”

Looking ahead, Paddle Antrim and the Village of Elk Rapids are partnering on a more than $900,000 project to improve Rotary Park in Elk Rapids. The ambitious plan includes an accessible kayak launch, a boat washing station to prevent the spread of invasive species and structural improvements to facilities and parking.

In their 10th year, Paddle Antrim is currently in the process of updating their strategic plan and the Chain of Lakes Water Trail plan and they are eager to explore opportunities for future enhancements to enrich experiences and further protect these waters for generations to come. 

“In reflecting on Paddle Antrim’s remarkable journey over the past decade, I am reminded of the power of community, collaboration, and a shared vision for our waterways,” Jerdee said. “Together with our donors, sponsors, volunteers, paddlers board members, and local governmental and non-profit partners, we have built not just a trail, but a legacy of access, stewardship, and adventure. As we celebrate our 10th anniversary, we raise our paddles to toast the achievements of the past and the boundless possibilities that lie ahead.”